Smuggler Specialties YA Appreciation Month 2010

YA Appreciation Month – Guest Author: Zetta Elliott on Diversity in YA

Welcome to our second guest post (the first one, by Michael Grant on writing dystopian fiction is here) in the YAAM – 2010 edition. As part of our celebration of all things YA, we invited authors from different genres to write articles about the books and the genres they write.

We are proud to present today’s guest: Zetta Elliott – writer, educator, activist and author of the excellent YA novel A Wish After Midnight.

Please, give it up for Zetta!

Everything we experience in life prepares us for what’s next. At least, that’s what I like to believe. I grew up not being the favorite in my family, which means I got used to my big brother getting the largest slice of pie and I struggled mightily to escape my older sister’s imposing shadow. Birth order may have something to do with the person I’ve become, but I like to believe that, ultimately, my childhood prepared me to recognize and reject “the myth of meritocracy.” I learned early on that I would always have to work harder to be seen and heard; no matter my talents or achievements, to some I would always be invisible.

What better preparation for life as a black feminist writer?

When I was invited to write this guest post on diversity in YA lit, I immediately agreed because of the respect I have for Ana and Thea. Their comprehensive analysis and ongoing coverage of the endless whitewashing scandals impressed me, and I hoped I could write something original and important about racism in the industry. But the truth is, I’m not sure how much more I have to say about the lack of equity in children’s publishing. I’ve tackled the subject in my open letter, on my Huffington Post blog, and in guest posts on other allies’ blogs. I’ve addressed the issue on conference panels and during radio interviews, and earlier this month I was even on C-Span! I do worry about sounding like a broken record, and know that my increased visibility as a so-called “expert” on the subject has made me unpopular in certain circles. Popularity was never my goal, however, so I count that as no great loss. But I was troubled when I saw this comment on a blogger’s review of AWAM: “I didn’t know Zetta had written a book! I was very impressed with her at the Book Blogger Convention, so I’m very glad to see this review. Thanks for letting us know about it!”

Now, I *do* wear a number of different hats, but first and foremost I think of myself as a writer. And as a writer, it is my job to make sure that people know about my books! So clearly, in the midst of my campaign for greater diversity, I must have dropped the ball. When I sat down to compile a list of the publishing privileges enjoyed by most white authors, it never occurred to me to add, “You will probably not lose your focus (or identity) as an artist by advocating for equity in the publishing industry.” Nor will you be “blacklisted” by agents and editors for trying to expose the myth of meritocracy. Nor will you experience “the weathering effect,” stressors that can compromise the health of people of color who are forced to live in a racist society.

Can I blame my weekly migraines on racism in the publishing industry? Maybe not. And I can’t definitively say that I’m being punished for openly critiquing the very white world of children’s literature. I can say that I’ve been unable to find an agent, even when friends and would-be allies share with me the names of their reps. I can say that despite having one award-winning book, I’ve been unable to sell any of the 20 picture book manuscripts taking up space on my hard drive. Major review outlets took a pass on my YA novel, which I initially self-published after five years of rejection by small and large presses alike.

Some might argue that this is a problem of my own making—after all, lots of aspiring authors face years of rejection. Perhaps it isn’t institutional racism but my “bad attitude” and lack of talent that’s to blame. If I were twelve again, that logic might actually make sense to me.

Because when I was twelve, I didn’t know that privilege is arbitrarily assigned and generally unearned. I thought there must be something I could do to win others’ approval. Now, as I near forty (with a PhD and substantial publication record under my belt), I know that I can only be who I am—and who I am is good enough. Statistics published by the CCBC prove that black authors are marginalized within the industry; we write less than 2% of the 5000 books published for children in the US annually, yet African Americans make up 12% of the population. Do all but a handful of us have bad attitudes? Are the vast majority of us incapable of writing publishable stories? Or is the industry simply satisfied with maintaining the status quo it has worked so hard to create?

“Oh, no!” I hear some of you protest. “The industry’s made up of well-meaning liberal types who wouldn’t dream of deliberately excluding truly talented writers.” And from another corner I hear an earnest editor insisting that she’d love to publish more writers of color, “but their manuscripts simply don’t cross my desk!” Yet how many of those well-meaning editors attended our panel on diversity in YA at the recent Harlem Book Fair? A literary event in an historically black neighborhood might be a good place to meet aspiring black authors… And how many “liberal types” from the publishing industry will attend the upcoming black children’s literature conference at NYU (A is for Anansi)? How many are willing to get behind a US Publishing Equalities Charter?

I would like to devote all of my time to my writing. I would love to escape to a room of my own and there remain oblivious to the inequality that keeps so many of us locked outside of the industry. But my hero, James Baldwin, insists such a fate isn’t for me. “The point is to get your work done,” he once wrote, “and your work is to change the world.” So that’s what I’m going to try to do—with the help of my friends, my peers, and any prospective allies who are willing to get on board. For someone like me, there’s a price to be paid for criticizing the industry; I knew that when I first spoke out over a year ago, and I’ve (almost) accepted the likelihood that those 20 unpublished manuscripts will stay right where they are on my laptop’s hard drive. Before writing this guest post I spent the better part of the day finalizing a book of poetry for children that I plan to self-publish. I won’t win any awards by going that route, and I certainly won’t become rich and famous. But I know now that I don’t have to wait for the stamp of approval that the industry so stubbornly withholds. Reality TV has shown us just how much talent there is in the world. Very few artists are lucky enough to get past the official gatekeepers, but we still exist. And we know that we’re good enough to compete—all we’re asking for is a chance.

(Many thanks to my good friend, Shadra Strickland, for posting this video on Facebook. Comedian Dave Chappelle invokes “the elephant in the room,” which is also the title of a recent online article on diversity in publishing by Elizabeth Bluemle.)

About the author: I’m a black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. I was born and raised in Canada, but have lived in the US for over a dozen years. I currently live in my beloved Brooklyn. When I’m not writing, you’re most likely to find me strolling through the botanic garden…

A huge thank you to Zetta!

Next Saturday in our YAAM series of Guest Posts: Sarah Rees Brennan on Why Read YA.


  • Megan
    July 31, 2010 at 3:35 am

    Zetta’s comments made me think of the disgusting practise of whitewashing book covers. Clearly there needs to be a major change in the way publishers think.

  • susan
    July 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    “For someone like me, there’s a price to be paid for criticizing the industry; I knew that when I first spoke out over a year ago…” But the work has to be done and we owe our respect and gratitude and action to those like you Zetta who do the work. Thank you.

    “I didn’t know Zetta had written a book!” And this ditty. So much for all those liberal minded folks who are concerned. Either you’re invisible or she’s blind. Baldwin wrote, “I’ve been here 350 years and you still don’t know who I am.” Seems to still be true.

  • Kayla
    July 31, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this post.

  • Zetta Elliott
    August 1, 2010 at 4:20 am

    Thanks to Ana and Thea for the *awesome* joint review, and for letting me vent about my struggles as an author. I don’t at all blame that commenter–I didn’t talk about my books on that panel, and it probably seems counter-intuitive to a lot of folks for an author to be so critical of the publishing industry. I need to make sure people know that I’m acting partly out of self-interest (all those unpublished manuscripts) and largely out of a belief that the current system’s simply unjust…

  • Aja
    August 1, 2010 at 9:06 am

    This is such a great guest post, Zetta. I just want to say that your panel at the BookBloggerCon was the most important part of that whole experience for me as a reader and a fan and a would-be writer. I was disappointed that the room thinned out a lot by the time that panel came around, and one reason why I nominated you for keynote speaker at next year’s convention was that I feel like this needs to become a part of our everyday discourse. I feel like we need to hear from you and writers and allies like you and your panelists first, before we hear from anyone else, about where the publishing industry needs to be heading in order to sustain itself into the next few decades and beyond.

    Everything you said here is so vital and so, so important. Thank you so much for doing this, and thank you so much to Thea and Ana for having you.

  • Karen Mahoney
    August 1, 2010 at 10:49 am


    Thank you for writing such an honest and heartfelt post. Ari (from Reading in Color) is constantly telling me how wonderful you are – I can certainly see why. 🙂

    That James Baldwin quote is a great one, but then he was a great man. One of my own favourites is:

    “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

    I think that’s so true of these issues, and I’m happy that there are people like you and Ari and so many others who are willing to help the industry to face them.

  • KMont
    August 1, 2010 at 11:52 am

    This is a very beautiful post. Very moving. Thank you for writing it.

  • Zetta Elliott
    August 2, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Thanks, Aja! But really, even if I were the keynote speaker, people could still opt out…and putting race front and center might just turn a lot of folks off. I’m still thinking about strategies for building alliances, and that probably means stepping back for a while b/c this “new” visibility can end up working against the cause…

    Karen–Ari’s amazing, and so is that quote from Baldwin–thanks for sharing it!

    KMont–thanks for letting me know my words didn’t fall into the void…

  • Amanda Isabel
    August 3, 2010 at 9:15 am

    This was an amazing and well thought out call to action and a reflection on the bitter reality that is the publication world. Thank you for being honest and open and brave enough to bring it to attention – this kind of inequality MUST stop.

  • Zetta Elliott
    August 4, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    thanks for speaking out in solidarity, Amanda!

  • LM Preston
    August 5, 2010 at 5:05 am

    Go Zetta! I remember the days when I was a college student at a pre-dominately black college and I waited in line to purchase self-pubbed books by authors that looked like me, experienced what I experienced. I joyed in supporting them and still have many of the books I purchased from them in my collection. Books that can’t be found anywhere, but to me are a true treasure. Yes these issues exist, but today our young people are on fire and ready to speak out about the choice of meeting other cultures being taken away from them. As a YA author I enjoy writing diverse characters that remind me of dear friends I had growing up. Stay true to your message Zeta it’s truly appreciated.

  • Ari
    August 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Zetta you will never cease to astonish me. Brillant guest post. I’m shocked that someone would not know that you’re an author. I think it’s pretty clear that you are, but maybe that’s because I’m very familiar with your work 🙂

    Dave Chappelle is quite a character. Interesting video you shared. I like that he doesn’t apologize for many of his jokes.

  • Jodie
    August 8, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Zetta I’m really curious (nosy) about your experience with AmazonEncore’s reissue of your book. I love their interest in presenting unrecognised books and the content of their list seems to reflect that they’re actively looking to represent a diverse selection of unrecognised books. As a reader so far I’ve had a fab time picking from their list. Considering all the Amazon as evil empire news reports it was a huge and welcome surprise to see how their new publishing venture works.

    Would you be able to say anything about how they picked your book, or how they pick their list? Do they have future plans to increase visibility, or are they planning to tie in with any other organisations to increase the diversity of what gets published?

  • Zetta Elliott
    August 8, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement, LM!

    Thanks, Ari! You know, I have former students who only think of me as a professor and don’t know I’m now a novelist; some people only know about my plays. Even my siblings don’t read my books! So it’s my job to make sure folks know who I am, and that (like you) I’m still evolving, adding skills and causes that are linked to my writing goals.

    Jodie–I don’t know how the Encore program works in terms of their selection criteria, but it is definitely a growing venture! I hope they continue to look for diverse voices, but I also hope they continue to invest time and energy in promoting each new book. We need exposure, and the big review outlets need to recognize our books as legitimate and worthy of review. I’m certain they’ll continue to grow, evolve, and innovate; I wish the people who hate on Amazon would invest equal energy in critiquing the large corporate presses that put out only one or two black-authored books per year…there is a comment box at the bottom of this page–you could try asking them directly:

  • The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Smugglivus 2010 Guest Author: Zetta Elliott
    December 4, 2010 at 12:03 am

    […] novels. We are avid readers of Zetta Elliott’s Fledgling blog and her articles on Diversity (like this article on Diversity in YA, which she kindly wrote for our Young Adult Appreciation Month). After reading her book this year […]

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